The Underview on 2001
The Underview on 2001

  In flat contradiction of what I have written elsewhere (that I rather like the mystery of not always knowing how clever effects are achieved), requests for explanations of some of the wholly convincing yet baffling scenes from "2001: A Space Odyssey" finally compel me to reveal a few secrets (with due respect to all those already in the know, who probably knew long before I did). If you think it will spoil your own enjoyment of the film, perhaps you should give this page a miss. I am alright, I kept my eyes closed while I wrote it.

The genius of Stanley Kubrick is such that he and his visual effects specialists took such well- worn techniques as strings and mirrors to achieve the effects they wanted, but moved them to a whole new level of realisation (and you may be surprised at some of the people who laid the groundwork for such effects - see my "Extras" page); and if those methods were inadequate, they simply devised concepts all of their own. In principle these were often disarmingly simple, but executed with such style that even after multiple viewings it is impossible not to accept that what we are seeing is the way it really happened.

The secrecy surrounding some of the methods devised by Kubrick and his advisors was such that even today the complete explanation of how, for example, the "stargate" scene was filmed is hard to piece together.

Below, you will find (some!) answers to how:

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* Heywood Floyd's pen came to be floating in mid-air Bullet point weightless motion was represented in an earthbound studio Bullet point the expanse of a lunar plain was created in a studio Bullet point Frank was able to jog vertically through a full circle
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Bullet point Dave managed to come down a ladder while Frank was sitting calmly above his head Bullet point Dave and Frank managed to appear in the same scene despite being positioned at right angles to each other Bullet point Hal was given his wide- angle view of the world Bullet point Dave and Frank succeeded in climbing feet first through a rotating hatch
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Bullet point Dave made it back in through the emergency airlock and was then able to float unsupported while disconnecting Hal Bullet point Dave's trip was filmed, with Martin Kelly's explanation of the Stargate machine Bullet point the hostess managed to turn upside down without falling in a heap... Bullet point and then tried a turn too many, as explained by Agostino Ambrosio
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How did Heywood Floyd's pen come to be floating in mid-air?

In the early days of Underman's 2001, I wrote a whimsical comment about not being able to see the strings in the "floating pen" scene, and was promptly chastised for my naivety. I had the last laugh, though, because strings were in fact used, and here (right) is Wally Veevers, one of Kubrick's Special Effects Supervisors, stringing up William Sylvester ("Heywood Floyd") in the Aries spacecraft interior - remember how Floyd's food tray suddenly levitated? Well, it's either that, or Wally is sewing William's cuff button back on (which would have been a shameful waste of Wally's unsurpassed skill as an expert in special effects of the non- computerised variety - one of the still- remarkable qualities of "2001" is the fact that, today, most digital effects are no more convincing than those which Wally and his colleagues put together all those years ago, without a real computer in sight).

The pen, too, was suspended on a string (actually a special very thin filament) in the more distant shots inside the Orion, but for the close ups it was glued lightly to a sheet of transparent acrylic, which was wiggled around gently in front of the camera. The hostess plucked it "out of thin air" by simply detaching it from the sheet.

Preparing Heywood Floyd for weightlessness
And here is the pen itself (below), along with a couple of even rarer items made for Kubrick by the Parker Pen Company. Excuse the graininess of these pictures - the wonder is that they exist at all. The company put out this press release:

"When moviegoers file out after seeing Stanley Kubrick's fantastic adventure into the future... they will probably agree that the stars are the research teams of leading... companies.
"Designers from... Parker Pen, among many others, were asked by Kubrick to produce samples of what their companies might have on the market in 33 years' time.
"An example of a product (of) the future is this atomic pen made by the Parker Pen Company and used in the movie. It is equipped with a tiny isotopic packet within the pen to produce power which is then converted to heat. This varies the flow of the pen's ink supply so that the writer can produce a wide range of line densities, from barely visible to strikingly embossed - a feature required by the addition of a third dimension to handwriting that Parker pundits think might develop during the next three decades.
"No point in going to your dealer's now - Parker doesn't expect to put this pen on sale until the next century!"

I think Parker Pen just invented the personal inkjet printer... though I doubt whether William Sylvester was REALLY paid to carry a miniature nuclear reactor in his pocket.

Heywood Floyd's Parker pen

Parker also made a second pen, which I do not recall seeing in the movie - has anyone spotted it? Here is an extract from the press release, and a picture of Atomic Pen Mk II:

"...this pen made by the Parker Pen Company for the movie. Called the "Chromatic", it mixes writing fluids to produce a full range of colors and shades. At the touch of a button, the writer can produce a variety of colors to lend emphasis to his thoughts as he expresses them on the page."

Parker Chromatic pen made for 2001

The final example (right)was even more ambitious. Again, I see no sign of it in the movie, and it took voice recognition software scientists thirty years to make the concept feasible:

"...the "Robo-Pen"... is controlled by the user's voice - dictate a letter and the pen will automatically write it. Instruments on the pen's keyboard can be used to select the style of penmanship, language, margin size and ink color. Some Parker prognosticators believe that handwriting of the year 2001 may be a computer like shorthand such as that shown in this photograph.
"Although Parker's market researchers hope this produce (sic) will be a hot-selling item in space stations at the turn of the century, they point out that they will not be taking orders for at least another two generations."

Parker Robo-Pen made for 2001

I do not know whether any examples of these products were actually produced, even in non- atomic form. I have never come across any. Is there a Parker Prognosticator in the house?

How was weightless motion represented in an earthbound studio?

Provide hostess with special "grip shoes" - soft Velcro- soled footwear. Give her a matching Velcro strip to walk along. Something like pulling your feet out of a bog with each step - hence rather faltering and uncertain progress. Irreverent thoughts: I bet that Velcro floor covering was a dog to vacuum clean; if that was done in real life, hearing the hostesses moving around would be like sitting next to someone ripping up sheets of calico.

Incidentally, did you ever take note of the scene where Floyd and Miller walk towards the camera along the length of the Hilton lounge? My eyes were always drawn to such details as the furniture and the lady in the booth, but you may have a suspicion that the two actors are walking in a slightly awkward way as they come into view. The reason? That set had to be curved vertically to represent the space station's "centrifuge" shape, which in real life would have created artificial gravity such that at any point on the floor people would have felt as though they were standing on a horizontal surface. However, in the studio no such artificial gravity existed, so as they approach us Floyd and Miller are in fact walking down a considerable incline, hence the well- disguised awkwardness and the convenience of having other elements in the shot to divert attention.

How was the entire lunar surface built inside a studio?

Building model spacecraft is one thing, but giving them realistic surroundings within the confines of a film studio took some ingenuity back in the mid- sixties. What appeared to be vast expanses of lunar surface were in some cases created, almost literally, on a table top. A technique known as "forced perspective" was used, in which apparently distant objects are modelled very close to the foreground. Because they are scaled down to the relative size that they would actually appear in reality, an observer looking from the correct viewpoint believes they are seeing a full- size scene in normal perspective (though a slight change in viewpoint would immediately reveal the illusion).

In the scene pictured, the scale can be judged from the studio lights in the foreground, while those "distant" mountains are almost directly behind the model moonbus.

Lunar scene

How could Frank jog vertically through a full circle?

Stanley Kubrick was making the most of the huge, studio- filling vertical centrifuge that he had built for the interior Discovery scenes, and which used up a not- inconsiderable chunk of that $10.5 million budget. Not a centrifuge in the rapidly whirling astronaut- cracking- machine sense (do they still use those things?), but motorized so that it could be set in motion and revolve at a rate fast enough to be interesting without dashing everything to pieces. The outside was like a scaffolder's worst nightmare (though probably built to the highest standards, as was all the 2001 furniture), but the interior housed the immaculate Discovery set.

Clever bit (or rather, even cleverer bit): the centrifuge was built with a channel running all the way round the centre of the "floor". An ingenious arrangement of flaps was used to cover up the channel so it was not visible in camera shot - the flaps were made to remain closed throughout the complete rotation. Next step: sit the camera on a mount which pokes up through the channel, but is not actually fixed to the centrifuge. The centrifuge can then be set in motion and as it revolves past the stationary camera each part of it gradually wafts majestically past while the flaps quietly (or perhaps rather clankily) part to make way for the camera mount and / or Stanley Kubrick and close again right after they have been passed.

Going round in circles (2)

Oh, and all Frank has to do to "jog" is stand in one spot right in front of the camera doing his exercises - all he was really doing was moving enough to keep pace in the opposite direction from the rotation of the centrifuge.

For variation, in other shots Kubrick had the camera fixed to the centrifuge, making it seem as though things were swimming around us. It is the same illusion as the rotating hostess - even when we tell ourselves how it was really done, we cannot rid ourselves of the perception that our viewpoint has to be fixed, therefore it is the other things that are moving.

How did Dave manage to come down a ladder while Frank was sitting calmly above his head?

"Calmly" is probably not a good way to describe how Frank must have been feeling at the time. He had the tough part. All Dave had to do was appear out of the hatch and climb normally down the ladder to the bottom - the angle at which the camera was set made it look as though it was a semi- sideways movement. Once on the "floor" (these words take on a new meaning in the context of this movie), the centrifuge is set in motion and Dave has an easy stroll on the spot until Frank comes round to meet him. And what of Frank? Before Dave appeared, Frank had literally been strapped to the set and rotated complete with the centrifuge until he was suspended upside down thirty- odd feet in the air, hanging on like grim death while looking wholly relaxed and unconcerned. There is a superb picture of this scene on page 146 of Piers Bizony's "2001: Filming the Future" (2000 edition), showing Dave and Frank in their respective positions.

Clever: no sign of Frank shifting out of or in to position while he effectively does, for real, what we thought the hostess did. Interesting: not so much as a grunt of greeting between Dave and Frank to start the "day" off.

Worth reflecting on: for the shot to work, it had to be Frank (Gary Lockwood) hanging on for dear life (as an alternative to grim death) and not a stunt double, as would more usually be the case (and was the case, in the scenes of the spacepod recovering Frank's body, which despite its appearance of relaxed calm involved some extremely strenuous and demanding physical exertions, to the extent that the stuntman (whose identity I do not know) needed an oxygen supply.)

Retrieving astronaut Frank

How did Dave and Frank manage to appear in the same scene despite being positioned at right angles to each other?

For me, always one of the most entertaining shots of the movie. Frank in foreground sits at the Discovery control panel while Dave behind, taking notes, appears to be standing at right angles to Frank. So simple! Have them at opposite ends of an L- shaped set with a mirror set at the angle (and at the correct angle).

How does the world look to Hal?

Stanley Kubrick gave responsibility for "additional photography" to the late John Alcott (below, left). John's son, Gavin, was kind enough to send me this wonderful composite picture of the actual fish-eye lens used for some of the Hal shots. You will find more information about John in the "Cast and Crew" page.

Stanley Kubrick with John Alcott

The fisheye lens for Hal

How did Dave and Frank succeed in climbing feet first through a rotating hatch?

Arguably, the single most intriguing effect of them all. We see the two of them making their way along a tubular tunnel to a rotating hatch. As if by magic, the moment Dave and Frank reach the hatch they start rotating with it and have the apparently near- impossible task of threading their way into the hatch, feet first. Of course, it is the rotating set effect again, but with the added intricacy of being in two parts. While in the tunnel part, Dave and Frank are simply clambering their way towards the hatch which is really rotating. But at the point where they move from one part to the other, the rotation is transferred from the hatch section to the tunnel. The camera starts moving, while Dave and Frank simply climb down into the now- stationary opening. Difficulty factor: achieving a stop- start rotation without a trace of jerkiness. Fiendish, Stanley, fiendish - though if you are very observant, you may wonder at the ease with which Dave and Frank enter the opening in a weightless condition.

How did Dave make it back in through the emergency airlock and then float unsupported while disconnecting Hal?

In Hal's brain room

Dave dangles

The strings come in useful again! For reentry, the camera was pointed directly upwards into a vertical set. Dave was trussed to a point in the "ceiling" and lowered towards the camera and wiggled around a bit. Illusion time again - once more, we cannot accept the shot as being anything other than horizontal, with Dave apparently shooting backwards and forwards as if by levitation. Of course, Dave's own body hid any sign of the "strings", but as with Frank being hoisted aloft the shot demanded that Dave (Keir Dullea) was trussed up for real instead of taking a break while a stunt double filled in for him.

And so it was in Hal's brain room. Dave was harnessed in such a way, with his own body between the camera and the tethering rig, that he appeared to move effortlessly into unnatural positions with no apparent support. Incidentally, the brain room was the scene of the only really serious accident reported to have occurred on the 2001 set, when a studio technician fell the full considerable height and broke his back - I do hope he recovered.

How was the stargate sequence filmed?

Who better to tell us all about "Slit-scan" than someone who spent many years creating special effects using just that technique? Martin Kelly reveals all here (click).

Right A picture of the actual slitscan machine used for 2001: A Space Odyssey


How did the hostess manage to turn upside down without falling in a heap?

Going round in circles (1)
Fix the camera to a tubular frame, large enough to contain the entire galley set. Hostess wanders in on her Velcro- encased feet, gets lunch for the guys and ambles away from camera. At the appropriate point, the tubular structure with the camera starts to slowly rotate, while the hostess walks on one spot in her own special Velcro way. Once the open "exit" comes round, all she need do is duck into it. Yet, after thirty years, it is still impossible not to perceive the scene as a static camera filming a lady doing the impossible. Thought: as if weightlessness was not enough, the tube was at the centrepoint of the rotation, so her head and feet were on opposite sides of the axis. Wonder how that might feel?

How did the hostess fluff her exit?

Read Agostino Ambrosio's view of arrangements inside the Aries, and how they compare to a famous geometric impossibility.


This page: Copyright © 1998-2001, 2008

Special thanks to Gavin Alcott for the Hal lens picture; Mary Hughes-Greer at the Gillette Company for the Parker Pen information; Martin Kelly for explaining slit-scan; Agostino Ambrosio for straightening out the hostess.

Detailed coverage of 2001 special effects was published in the June 1968 issue of "American Cinematographer". Some of the pictures in this page are taken from that journal.

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The Underview on 2001

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